Unemployment down, job openings up; how fare Washington, Iron counties

ST GEORGE – In 2008, what some economists have termed the “Great Recession” began and during that year Washington County’s unemployment rate went from 3.7 percent in January to 7.8 percent by December. According to Utah’s Department of Workforce Services, Washington County’s unemployment rate reached its highest point in February 2010 at 11.7 percent. Iron County’s unemployment rate rose to its highest point, 10.8 percent, in March 2010. March 2014 data places unemployment for Washington and Iron counties, respectively, at 4.9 percent and 5.1 percent.

Where we were, and where we are now

Economic Service Area Director for Workforce Services in St. George, Stephen Lisonbee, said:

We saw a lot of skilled labor and construction that no longer had employment opportunities. A lot of them left the area. What was left was just a residual impact, a lot of people just finding part-time jobs. Once construction left, whatever was left slowly built back up. We have a much more diverse work force now. We have a stronger nucleus now than we did before. Manufacturing started to take off. We are also seeing a big surge in our technology area.

Stephen Lisonbee, Economic Service Area Director Department Of Workforce Services, St George, Utah May 22, 2014 | Photo by DWS
Economic Service Area Director Stephen Lisonbee, Department Of Workforce Services, St George, Utah May 22, 2014 | Photo courtesy of Department of Workforce Services, St. George News

With the shift in the jobs market in Washington and Iron counties, the Department Of Workforce Services instituted a program called “Work Success.” This program is designed for people who were working in an industry for the majority of their working career, who, for diverse reasons, found themselves unemployed and looking for a new job. The course is about two weeks long, meeting Monday-Thursday from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. The department assists participants in finding out what skills they have, what jobs need those required skills, then assists them in marketing themselves for those new jobs. It’s open to anyone and there is no cost.

St. George resident Sharon Curtice is participating in the Work Success program; she said:

I lived out in California, when the recession hit. I lost my job. I could no longer afford the home I was living in. So about a year ago, I moved to St George with my family, to get back on my feet. I have never been without a job for more than a few weeks. I also have never had a problem getting in the door to interview and sell myself.

After coming out here and having several experiences in not getting through the door, I thought there was something wrong with me. I gave up looking. Then two weeks ago I spoke to someone about this program. I have been here and am having great success. I actually have interviews set up.

Harbor Freight, which is set to open its store in Washington soon, held interviews at the Department Of Workforce Services. “A lot of our Work Success customers had interviews and were hired on the spot,” Lisonbee said. “Harbor Freight was in the interview room, and was so impressed by a resumé of a Work Success customer, they called asking them to come into an interview without knowing they were in the office working on their program. They walked right into the room and received a job.”

In Washington County, there are currently 521 people on unemployment, Lisonbee said. There are 4,713 people looking for a job. From Jan. 1 through April 30, 904 employers posted jobs bringing the total open jobs listed with Workforce Services to 2,635.

In Iron County there are currently 227 people on unemployment, Lisonbee said. There are currently 2,491 job seekers. From Jan. 1 through April 30, 409 employers posted jobs bringing the total open jobs listed with Workforce Services to 918.

“I think the biggest thing we are seeing is people trying to take a skill set they have,” Lisonbee said, “and try to connect that and present themselves better when they apply for and ultimately get a job.”

Sharon Curtice Work Success Customer. St George, Utah May 22, 2014 | Photo by T.S Romney
Sharon Curtice, “Work Success” customer of Utah’s Department of Workforce Services, St George, Utah May 22, 2014 | Photo by T.S. Romney, St. George News

How unemployment rates are determined 

“For counties there is as very specific method. The unemployment rate is a fairly accurate estimate, rather than an actual confirmed survey data,” Lecia Langston, an economist for the Department Of Workforce Services, said in contrasting local analyses to national data. “For counties they make a fairly accurate estimate based on a number of different factors like unemployment insurance claims and employment growth. Every county in the country is estimated in the same way. There is a very complicated and long method of calculating using a computer.”

The national unemployment data on the other hand, is based on a household survey done monthly.

“When you look at the national numbers, it is based on the answers people have to a certain set of questions,” Langston said. For example, questions on the national survey address such things as whether an individual is simply fed up and left the workforce.

The survey doesn’t actually ask if a person is unemployed. It runs through a number of questions and then makes the determination whether the person surveyed meets the definition of being unemployed based on fair labor statistics.

Comparing Washington, Iron counties

If you really want to know how your economy is doing, you look at year-to-year job growth, Langston said. Generally, unemployment rates are lagging indicators. For Washington County, the job growth indicators show around a 5 percent rate for the last two years.

“That is very strong and consistent job growth rate. Iron County is not doing as well,” Langston said. Iron County has struggled since the end of the recession to get to a consistent level of job growth.

“They will peak their heads up, and show some growth,” Langston said of Iron County. “Then they will come back down and show some job loss. In the fourth quarter of 2013, which is the most recent hard data that we have, they were beginning to show some consistent employment growth around 1.5 percent.”

According to the March 2014 data issued by Workforce Services, the unemployment rate was at 5.1 percent for Iron County. For Washington County, the unemployment rate was at 4.9 percent.

“We have seen a lot of growth,” Lisonbee said. “People are coming back here.”


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